Pansy Division (photo: Patric Carver)
It’s been said that the goal of punk rock is to dissolve the barrier between stage and audience. On Friday, November 11, three bands came together at Bottom of the Hill to annihilate that border, leaving a frenzied gathering in the demolition’s wake.
Openers The Pathogens tore into a long set of short, infectious songs that quickly resulted in a pit of slam-dancing, pogoing punks from a group of disenchanted-seeming young people milling about the bar. The antithesis of a Young Republicans meeting, the theme of the night seemed to be politics as personal. Flipping stereotypes on their ear, old-enough-to-join-AARP vocalist Cinder Block (formerly of Tilt and Retching Red) and current Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner Jesse Luscious (formerly of Blatz) spit out grinding criticisms of the current state of the union along with a playful, but intense manner. Distaste for the result of presidential election was intertwined within the content of between song banter — packing punchy lines such as allusions to Trump “goose-stepping” into office and creating, “the best camps, truly remarkable camps.” The Pathogens didn’t stand and deliver a sermon to the audience, though. The quips were quick, and it really was a set of less talk and more rock.
If you were a fan of Tilt in the ’90s, it was probably because of Cinder Block’s primal, soul-rattling vocals. Lots of punk bands had the same fire in their belly, and some even had the same knack for three-chord charging guitars and bite-your-bottom-lip lyrics. However, none had a singer like Block. The honest, woody timbre of her voice tells you she’s not playing around. The realest form of theatrics emerged from her vocal chords in the lull between Gulf Wars, and she proved at this show that her talent has not evaporated over the years. In fact, it may have only intensified. Between the antics of microphone-swinging and hamming it up with her fellow stage mates, Block’s voice was as strong as ever. She managed to turn even the playful “Yer Dad is Rad” — a song about a dad who is, um, rad — into an anthem. It’s important to note, though, that Block was not a one-woman show by any means. The band surrounding her showed a talent that matched their enthusiasm. They bounced from Chuck-Berry-inspired peels of guitar at the opening of call-and-response story-song “Johnny and Jenny” to moody, lulling melody “ADL”. The set ended with the entire band glistening with sweat, well-earn satisfaction, and Block retching into the microphone, “Power to the people!”
The band that followed dulled the electricity coursing through the crowd a little, which was a needed shift if we were all going to make it to the last band. Club Meds, a quartet consisting of drums, keyboard, guitar, and vocals, provided a set that was a little like Flight of the Conchords meets The Strokes. The drums almost made you forget that this band forgot to hire a bassist, with its heavy tom-toms and kicked-out bass. The guitar was very solid, too; it was reminiscent of Antidotes-era Foals. The vocals were provided by the grown version of every star-focused theatre kid you’ve ever met — he provided explanation for each song, as if emceeing his own performance.Silly, saccharine, and self-effacing, Club Meds was the break the audience needed before launching into more moshing.
The crowd absolutely swelled when Pansy Division took the stage. Again the political tone returned to the stage, with guitarist Jon Ginoli laying out his feelings about the election to a group people who suddenly appeared to be in mourning. Couples held each other as Ginoli laid out a message of pensive hope. However, once the music got started, most of the romantic sentiment bled out and a transfusion of punk bravado took over.
I saw Pansy Division about 20 years ago at a little club in Tampa, Florida called Blue Chair Music. I can tell you that two things have changed since then: For starters, they’ve all learned to play their instruments. Additionally, they added a new guitarist — their token straight, Joel Reader. Though Reader has been with the band for over a decade, he still seems like “the new guy,” and even referred to himself as such. Perhaps that is because the one thing that appears to have not changed about Pansy Division over the years is their fans. Though the faces weren’t the same, the heart and mindset of the audience was just as I remembered from my first Pansies show — a take-no-prisoners attitude about revolution and social change through the voice box of campy punk rock.
Donning a sticker on his guitar that said, “At least I’m not Christian,” bassist Chris Freeman pumped out solid low-end that balanced with the bright, poppy guitars and drummer Luis Illades’ beats. Highlights of the evening include the sweet conversational Some of my Best Friends that addresses straight alliances with the gay community and their raging cover of Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin. Theatrics were also high on the agenda, with Freeman changing costumes multiple times to portray a clergyman and burlesque dancer. In between nipple-rubbing and witty quips, Freeman also tore up pictures of GOP candidates, including the president-elect, with a flair that would have made Sinead O’Connor proud. This was before the finale of shredding a Bible to pieces — a move which the punks in the audience literally ate up by stuffing the discarded pages of scripture into their mouths and gnawing it into pulp.
Punk may have been dead for a while, but it appears that the current state of the state has shocked some rhythm back into the voices from the past. Remember how good the music of the Reagan era was? Well, it appears to we are on an upsurge once again of dirty, gritty punk. If that’s not something to inspire hope, I don’t know what will.